What if the Playoffs Made Sense?: A Postseason Preview

If you’ve paid any attention to baseball over the past decade or so, you know that playoff results are governed by something other than logic. There is no formula that can identify a great playoff team. October baseball is driven by some combination of heart, guts, grit, and randomness- a little heavier on the last one.

But what if the playoffs made sense? What if Major League Baseball Players were of such varied skill levels that better players beat lesser players every time? Little League is a little like this, as is the NBA. Baseball might have been more like this a century ago, when only white players from the northeastern United States played the game, “sports medicine” wasn’t yet a thing, and most players had other jobs in the winter to make ends meet. A team with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri and Earle Combs was just better than a team without those guys, so of course they won. (editor’s note: sometimes they lost)

In an effort to understand which teams are best positioned for the playoffs- in other words, which teams would win if we could somehow set aside all the randomness in baseball- I created a model that assigned run values to each pitcher, hitter, and fielder based on how many opportunities he’s likely to have to impact a game in a best-of-one, -five, or -seven game series. Why not just add up each team’s WAR and call it a day? Because the Blue Jays don’t care how many games their bullpen blew early in the season when the personnel was entirely different. Because the Dodgers don’t care how their fifth starter fared this year. Because the Mets are a different team with Yoenis Cespedes and a healthy David Wright.

I started building the model by establishing a prototypical 25-man roster, consisting of four starting pitchers, a long reliever, a closer, lefty and righty setup men, four additional relievers, one regular starter at each position including DH (or primary PH in the NL), a backup catcher, a utility infielder, a fourth outfielder, and a baserunning specialist. I understand that some teams won’t construct their rosters this way, but I had to standardize the field to measure teams consistently.

The model makes a few core assumptions. First, teams will lean heavily on the pitchers at the top of their rotation and a few key relievers. In a one-game playoff, a team will only use its ace (assuming he’s available) and a few core relievers. In a best-of-five, at least three starters will appear, but the number one guy is likely to start twice. In a best-of-seven, most teams will use four starters, a long reliever is likely to make an appearance or two, and the team will probably dig deeper into its bullpen, pulling out a second lefty specialist or a starter who didn’t make the playoff rotation. I based my innings pitched projections on some facts- starters averaged 5.8 innings per start in the majors this year and teams used 3.09 relievers per game- and some guesses- in a four-game sweep, a team is equally likely to use its ace twice than to use its fourth starter.

Next, a team’s best hitters will come to bat more than its worst, but that impact is less severe than with pitchers. Again, plate appearance assumptions were based on some facts- teams averaged 37.8 plate appearances per game this season- and some guesses- players who typically hit in the bottom third of a team’s lineup are more likely to be pinch-hit for or given a day off in the playoffs. In all, I assigned 69% of all plate appearances to guys who usually bat in the top six spots, 25% to the bottom three regulars, and 6% to the subs.

With the framework of the model built, I assigned players from each of the ten playoff teams to the 25 roster spots on each team. While Paulo Orlando might get more plate appearances as Kansas City’s fourth outfielder than Travis Ishikawa gets as Pittsburgh’s, they slot into similar enough roles that the run values will be directionally correct.

For each player, I looked at his full-season stats (courtesy of fangraphs), even if he changed teams or leagues during the year. For pitchers, I pulled their Runs Above Replacement per inning pitched and multiplied it by the number of innings their roster spot is likely to pitch in each scenario (1, 5, or 7 games) to arrive at an estimate of how many runs they’re likely to save in a series. For hitters, I grabbed offensive runs above average per plate appearance and multiplied by their lineup spot’s projected plate appearances. Then I took defensive runs above replacement per plate appearance and multiplied by projected plate appearances for a separate fielding runs estimate (I used a different PA estimate for fielding to more closely resemble innings fielded; using innings fielded as the denominator is complicated by the negative adjustment given to designated hitters in Defensive Runs Above Average). The finishing touch was a look at baserunning runs above average per game played, multiplied by the assumption that each team’s baserunning specialist will get one opportunity per game to pinch run.

Adding these values for all 25 roster spots, I came up with a score for each team in a best-of-one, -five, or -seven game series. While the baseline is replacement level for pitchers and average for position players, all figures are measured in runs, so we’ll call the result Playoff Runs. Some of the results were surprising.

Rather than simply ranking the teams based on their total scores, let’s mock the playoffs by assuming the team with the better score for the appropriate length series wins every time. Then we can watch the playoffs and wonder why half of these predictions are dead wrong as always.

American League Wild Card Game
Astros (2.37) over Yankees (1.65)

Why the Astros Win This Simulation
By any measure, Dallas Keuchel had a better season than Masahiro Tanaka. By Playoff Runs, the Astros also score better than the Yankees offensively, where the Astros have home run power all over the lineup, and in the field, where the Yankees are by far the worst team in the playoffs.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
Keuchel pitched far better at home than on the road this season, and will pitch on three days’ rest for the first time in the big leagues. Tanaka, meanwhile, gets an extra day of rest and the two-headed monster of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances with extra rest behind him.

National League Wild Card Game
Cubs (2.91) over Pirates (1.83)

Why the Cubs Win This Simulation
It’s not just Jake Arrieta. Sure, Arrieta’s 6.5 projected innings are worth 1.76 runs alone, but Gerrit Cole counters with 1.49 of his own. Pittsburgh has a slight edge in the bullpen, but that’s about all they can hang their hats on. The Cubs’ defense, anchored by Addison Russell and Miguel Montero, grades out far better, and their bats pick up another third of a run, thanks to lots of projected plate appearances for Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
These baby Cubs (I guess that’s redundant) were called up piecemeal this season and took little time adjusting to the big leagues. As such, we’re dealing with small samples when we say that Schwarber and Jorge Soler are elite hitters and Russell has a great glove. One defensive miscue or rookie mistake on the basepaths could swing this game, so perhaps we shouldn’t put too much stock in a few months’ worth of solid numbers. The Pirates won 98 games and are hosting this game for the third straight year, so they may be better than their Playoff Runs. Then again, observing Jake Arrieta over the last few months gives us reason to believe there may not be many innings left in this Pirates season.

American League Division Series
Blue Jays (10.08) over Rangers (5.64)

Why the Blue Jays Win this Simulation
This may be the only postseason series that feels like it has an obvious favorite, and Playoff Runs back that up, ranking the Blue Jays first among AL playoff teams and the Rangers last. The Blue Jays field better and hit better, and both their rotation and bullpen are superior.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
There are actually some similarities between these two teams. Both were stuck around .500 at the trade deadline, but decided to make bold moves that paid off. Each team added its current ace (David Price and Cole Hamels) and enough bullpen pieces to turn a weakness into a strength. Hamels and the bullpen were particularly good down the stretch for Texas, and with Martin Perez and Derek Holland healthy, they’ve got the pitching depth to try to hang with the Blue Jays’ dangerous lineup.

Astros (8.32) over Royals (7.87)

Why the Astros Win this Simulation
First off, they barely do. This was the closest of all the matchups. Houston’s pitching grades out better, both in the rotation and, perhaps surprisingly, in the bullpen, where only the Yankees and Blue Jays are better. Relievers Luke Gregerson, Tony Sipp, and Josh Fields were immensely valuable this year, and having Lance McCullers (or Mike Fiers; the model guesses it’s McCullers) as a potential longman out of the pen is a bonus. Kansas City has far better gloves, but the model likes the Astros’ swing-for-the-fences approach slightly more than Kansas City’s put-everything-in-play gameplan, by a count of 2.09 Playoff Runs to 1.7.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
Kansas City’s bullpen is good too, and Ned Yost can lean heavily on Wade Davis, the game’s best reliever in 2015, if needed. This team seemed to add up to more than the sum of its parts all year, with the great outfield defense picking up the mediocre rotation and the hitters scraping just enough runs across with aggressive bats and legs. Furthermore, switching Keuchel to “SP3” and shifting Scott Kazmir and Collin McHugh up drops Houston’s Playoff Runs to 7.95, a virtual tie with the Royals. This one’s a toss-up.

National League Division Series
Mets (11.13) over Dodgers (9.62)

Why the Mets Win this Simulation
Here’s the biggest surprise of the simulation. The Dodgers have the best pitching, whether we’re looking at one game or a series of any length. The model sees Kershaw and Greinke pitching enough innings, particularly in a short series like this, to bully any opposing staff. But the next best pitching staff is in New York, with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and what’s left of Matt Harvey leading the way. Whether Bartolo Colon or Steven Matz gets the fourth start doesn’t make much difference, as a long man in relief could throw more innings in a short series than the fourth starter anyway, particularly if it’s a sweep. The Mets dive ahead here in both defense and offense. Yoenis Cespedes and Travis d’Arnaud get big points on both sides of the ball. The offensive numbers love Curtis Granderson, David Wright, and Lucas Duda at the top of the order and Juan Lagares and Wilmer Flores at key defensive positions. These Mets are good.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
These Mets are good, but are they great? Four of the five starting pitchers have thrown more big-league innings this year than in any other season, and the fifth is 42 years old. Are there enough quality innings on this staff to offset Kershaw and Greinke? Furthermore, some of the Mets’ biggest per-at-bat numbers are based on small sample sizes. David Wright returned from injury to post .041 offensive runs per PA (better than Alex Rodriguez an similar to Lorenzo Cain), while Michael Conforto’s .029 defensive runs are based on less than 400 innings in the field. The Dodgers’ second-half slump might make their 2.84 offensive Playoff Runs (third best in the playoffs) look a little aggressive, but would anyone have guessed that the Mets would score higher than anyone, including Toronto? Numbers don’t lie, but they can deceive.

Cubs (10.01) over Cardinals (6.53)

Why the Cubs Win this Simulation
The Cardinals won 100 games based on the consistent excellence of their starting pitching and not much else. In October, they’ll only occasionally have the better starting pitcher, and with Yadier Molina out (the model considers him the backup catcher), there’s not much to be afraid of in terms of offense or defense. In contrast, the Cubs started relatively slowly and never really contended for the division title, but as their rookies matured, the team started to gel, and Jake Arrieta established himself as perhaps the best righty in the game. With the regular season behind us and 25-man rosters set, there’s not much to suggest that the Cards are better. In fact, the Cubs have big edges in pitching, fielding, and hitting over the Cardinals.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
Cardinals devil magic? The starting pitchers will keep St. Louis in every game, and in recent Octobers, it seems like any game in which the Cards keep it close end up going their way. Past playoff performance doesn’t mean much, though, and these Cubs are just better. Even if we change Arrieta to the third starter, which is where he’d likely slot in after pitching the Wild Card game, the Cubs still have the advantage in every category.

American League Championship Series
Blue Jays (14.06) over Astros (8.66)

Why the Blue Jays Win this Simulation
Batting. But also starting pitching. This is where we finally get into best-of-seven series, where depth matters a little more, but the Blue Jays are still winning based on the heart of the order, where Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion alone hold a 2.2-run advantage over the Astros’ 2 through 4 hitters- and the rotation, where David Price, Marcus Stroman, RA Dickey, and Marco Estrada were far more effective this year than the Astros’ front four.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
The Blue Jays’ opponent here might be the Royals or Yankees, rather than the Astros. Of course, runs above average prefer the Blue Jays to any of them by a good distance, but no opponent is a pushover in October, and any of these teams could be the one to turn the Blue Jays back into the pumpkin that was struggling to stay relevant at the trade deadline.

National League Championship Series
Mets (15.37) over Cubs (13.91)

Why the Mets Win this Simulation
Regardless of the length of the series, the model likes the Mets more than any NL team. While the Cubs get more Playoff Runs for pitching and fielding, the Mets’ offense is a significant advantage. While Schwarber, Rizzo, and Bryant outscore their lineup counterparts in the middle, the Mets hit better at the top and bottom of the lineup.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
At this point in the playoffs, we don’t really know which teams will be able to line up their rotations optimally. The Mets have one of the deeper rotations, so they’re more flexible in terms of using someone other than their ace in game one. On the offensive side, though, the Mets were no-hit by Max Scherzer on the second-to-last day of the regular season, then they get dates with Kershaw and Greinke and possible multiple meetings with Arrieta and Lester. Their offense grades out well in Playoff Runs, but they feasted on Phillies, Braves, and Marlins pitching in compiling those numbers. This slate could prove to be their undoing.

World Series
Mets (15.37) over Blue Jays (14.06)
Why the Mets Win this Simulation
These two teams are almost identical in pitching Playoff Runs, and Mets field better than the Blue Jays, but the difference here comes on the offensive side, where New York’s bats are actually better too. Toronto has the edge over anyone in the heart of the order, but extend that “heart” to Granderson/Wright/Cespedes/Murphy/Duda/d’Arnaud/Conforto, with Cuddyer DHing in Toronto, and the Mets look really good. If the three young guns are still throwing gas in late October, this could be the team that finally neutralizes the murderers’ row in Canada.

What the Model Doesn’t Consider
Fangraphs’ WAR is adjusted for league quality, but the run components are not. The National League was top-heavy this year, with seven good teams and eight really bad ones, while the AL was solid from top to bottom. This may be part of the reason why National League teams rank first, third, fourth, seventh, and eighth in total Playoff Runs. The Blue Jays played better teams all year and didn’t have the same opportunities to put up garish run/PA numbers, but they’re clearly stacked offensively and defensively. It’s hard to imagine the Mets being considered favorites if this World Series actually came to fruition.

So there you have. Mets over Blue Jays. I’m not sure that “makes sense”, but it’s at least based in quantitative logic. If (recent) past performance were a strong indicator of playoff success, the Mets would be the most formidable team this October, though their first playoff opponent wouldn’t be far behind. You’ll note that this model favors the newcomers to the playoff party over the establishment. While I believe playoff experience is overrated, we’ve seen the Cardinals and Yankees win enough in October to believe that the Mets and Blue Jays have uphill climbs despite their loaded rosters.

Let’s close with the ten playoff teams ranked by their aggregate Playoff Runs over a best-of-seven series:

1. Mets (4th in pitching, 3rd in fielding, 1st in hitting)
2. Blue Jays (3rd in pitching, 5th in fielding, 2nd in hitting)
3. Cubs (2nd in pitching, 2nd in fielding, 4th in hitting)
4. Dodgers (1st in pitching, 8th in fielding, 3rd in hitting)
5. Astros (5th in pitching, 7th in fielding, 5th in hitting)
6. Royals (9th in pitching, 1st in fielding, 6th in hitting)
7. Cardinals (8th in pitching, 4th in fielding, 9th in hitting)
8. Pirates (6th in pitching, 9th in fielding, 8th in hitting)
9. Yankees (7th in pitching, 10th in fielding, 7th in hitting)
10. Rangers (10th in pitching, 6th in fielding, 10th in hitting)

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NL Cy Young Preview

September’s here. The usual suspects (and the Mets) are dominating the National League. Continuing my series of major award previews, here are the five players most likely to win the NL Cy Young Award, in ascending order of likelihood:

5. Madison Bumgarner, Giants
No, Bumgarner probably isn’t one of the five best pitchers in the National League. Despite last October’s theatrics and the subsequent canonization, he probably never has been. He’s 13th in the league in ERA (2.97) and tied for fifth in FIP (2.76) despite pitching in the most extreme pitcher’s park in the league. His 9.84 K/9 are great, but not Kershaw (11.48) great. Bumgarner finds himself on this list for another reason. He’s 16-6, and while pitcher wins and losses don’t carry as much weight as they used to (for good reason), it’s not just defense and run support that are carrying him to all those wins. MadBum is batting .262/.286/.525 with five home runs. That’s not just far better than any other pitcher, it’s 27 percent better htan league average for any player. Fangraphs tells us he’s been worth 1.1 wins above replacement with his bat and glove. Add that to his 4.4 on the mound and he jumps to third in the NL in total fWAR. That’s not quite MVP material, but if the Cy Young Award is for the best player in baseball whose primary position is pitcher, Bumgarner’s not far off.

4. Jacob deGrom, Mets
Two years ago, the Mets brought up a rookie who pitched one of the great seasons in baseball history, nearly joining a very elite club. When Matt Harvey missed a full season to Tommy John surgery, the Mets called up deGrom, a less-heralded but nearly-as-effective righty who won the Rookie of the Year award. This year it was Noah Syndergaard’s turn to introduce himself to the world, but as good as Thor has been, Harvey’s been better and deGrom has been the best of the three. His 2.32 ERA ranks fourth in the NL and his 2.89 FIP is ninth. He’s a major part of the reason the Mets have surprised everyone by running away with the NL East. A lot would have to break his way for deGrom to win a Cy Young Award, but it’s not impossible.

3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
If I were ranking the best pitchers in the NL this year, Kershaw would come out on top. 11.48 K/9. 1.61 BB/9. 0.63 HR/9. 2.24 ERA. 2.10 FIP. There’s nobody better in the game right now and this lines up with the best years of the lefty’s career. There’s a better story going though- maybe two- and voters need to be blown away to keep giving the Cy Young Award to the same guy. Kershaw was the best pitcher in the league when RA Dickey won his award in 2012 and he’ll likely have been the best pitcher in the league when one of the next two guys wins it this year. So it goes.

2. Jake Arrieta, Cubs
Until this weekend, this was a one-horse race, and it may still be, but with his Sunday no-hitter against the Dodgers, Arrieta reminded us that ballots aren’t due just yet. His 2.49 FIP can’t quite match Kershaw’s, and it’s driven in large part by a freakishly low 0.44 homers per nine innings. His 2.11 ERA isn’t quite the next guy’s, but it would be the fourth lowest in either league over the last ten seasons, topped only by the guys before and after him on this list. Both are second-place figures, though, and along with the narrative of the Cubs finally getting back to the playoffs and a chance to break a 107-year World Series drought, it’s not out of the question that Arrieta could pull into the lead this month.

1. Zack Greinke
Zack Greinke has a 1.61 ERA. Pedro Martinez never did that. Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver, Warren Spahn, and Randy Johnson never did that. Here’s full list of qualified ERAs that low since 1920:

Bob Gibson, 1968, 1.12
Dwight Gooden, 1985, 1.53
Greg Maddux, 1994, 1.56
Luis Tiant, 1968, 1.60

Two of those guys pitched from 10-foot high mounds in the Year of the Pitcher. One of those guys started just 25 games in a strike-shortened year. Zack Greinke’s 2015 is next on this list.

His 8.23 strikeouts per nine are merely very good. His 1.56 walks per nine are legendary. For good measure, he’s given up a homer per 18 innings, held batters to a .236 batting average on balls in play, and stranded 86% of runners who reached base against him. Don’t expect Greinke to keep his ERA this low over five or six more starts. It’s very likely, though, that he’ll keep it under 2, and if he does, he’ll be hard to deny for his second Cy Young Award, even if Kershaw or Arrieta is just a few hundredths of a run behind. Some numbers are magical. So are some seasons. Greinke’s having one of those right now.

Honorable Mention: Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, all of the Cardinals’ starters

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Ranking This Year’s AL MVP Candidates

Much like I did last night for the NL, it’s about time to take a first look at which AL players are the most likely (if not necessarily the most deserving) to win the 2015 Most Valuable Player Award. From five to one:

5. Nelson Cruz, Mariners
Nelson Cruz plays for a bad team. He’s a defensive liability and offers no baserunning value. He’s not going to win the MVP, this year or ever. That said, the dude is raking. He’s got 39 home runs, and might make a run at 50. He’s batting .314 and draws the occasional walk. Let’s just say this: if the top two guys are struck down by meteors in the next week or two, there is reason to believe some voters might be swayed by Cruz’s impressive bat.

4. Dallas Keuchel, Astros
Sonny Gray (2.13) has the better ERA. Chris Sale (2.38) has the better FIP. It’s hard to argue that Keuchel has been the best pitcher in the league this year, let alone the best player. He does have a 2.28 ERA, though, and a 2.66 FIP, both good for second in the league, and his Astros have a healthy lead in the AL West. We’re really splitting hairs about third-place votes here, and Keuchel’s a reasonable option for a bronze.

3. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
This would be such a Golden Era pick, wouldn’t it? If not for divisions, wild cards, and playoff games, the Royals would be lapping the field for the AL pennant, waiting for another I-70 showdown against the Cardinals in the World Series. Why are the Royals 13 games up in the AL Central? Well, relief pitching and defense, I suppose, but those don’t make for sexy MVP candidates. How about a center fielder hitting.312/.368/.483 with 12 homers, 26 stolen bases, and a good chunk of that aforementioned defensive acumen? As Cain goes, so go the Royals. #narratives

2. Mike Trout, Angels
Is this the year the Best Player in Baseball™ meets his match? I mean, aside from the voters who like ribbiez and batting crowns? Since Trout joined the league in 2012, there’s never been a player all that close to equaling his performance over a full season. 2015 just might be that year somebody does better. Sure, Trout is hitting .298/.397/.581. That’s good for a 171 wRC+, better than every American Leaguer except Cruz and part-timer Miguel Cabrera. Sure, he has 33 homers, 10 stolen bases, and a handful of highlight-reel catches. Sure, he’s been worth 7.1 WAR per fangraphs and 7.4 per Baseball Reference. But somebody’s been better.

1. Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
It’s the 36 homers. It’s the .301/.369/.584 slash line that looks an awful lot like Trout’s. It’s the third-base defense that grades out better than Trout’s by just about any measure. It’s the slight edges in both versions of WAR (7.4 and 7.6, respectively). More than any of that, though, it’s the narrative. Trout’s always awesome. We’ve known that since he was a teenager. Donaldson, though, was a non-prospect who overachieved for two seasons with the A’s. All-knowing Billy Beane dumped him in the offseason for pennies on the dollar, either not willing to put up with his attitude or certain that his recent success was a fluke.

Then Donaldson brought the rain to Toronto. Bautista, Encarnacion, Martin, and Reyes were there waiting for him. Tulowitzki and Colabello joined the parade. Donaldson outperformed them all. The Blue Jays have scored 718 runs on the season, 89 more than the second-place Yankees. That’s not just in the AL East- it’s an 89-run advantage over any other team in baseball. Donaldson’s in the middle of it all, more than doubling any other Blue Jay’s WAR.

If it feels like Donaldson’s been clutch, the numbers back it up. His 5.43 Win Probability Added leads all AL position players, more than a win ahead of Trout’s 3rd-place 4.11. The Blue Jays are 24-5 after a 50-51 start, scoring almost six and a half runs per game over that stretch. Credit the acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki, but Tulo has batted .237 with four homers as a Blue Jay. Donaldson, since the All-Star break, has hit .320/.408/.707 with 15 home runs in 39 games. If he keeps hitting like he did in August, Donaldson might turn one of the great MVP races in recent memory into a laugher.

Honorable Mentions: J.D. Martinez, Manny Machado, Chris Sale

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Sizing Up the NL MVP Race

The dog days of August are about to give way to the pennant chases of September. As the playoff picture comes into focus, so do the postseason award races. Let’s take a look at the top contenders, starting with National League Most Valuable Player. I’ll rank them in ascending order of likelihood to win the award.

5. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
Goldschmidt has probably been the second-best position player in the NL this year. He’s batting .326/.442/.567 with 26 home runs, 20 stolen bases, and good defense. He’s transitioning from a good player toiling in relative obscurity to one of the game’s great superstars. So why isn’t he higher on this list? Because one guy has a higher batting average, higher OBP, higher slugging percentage, more home runs, and plays on a team with a better record. He’ll collect a lot of second-place votes, but there’s just no avenue for Goldschmidt to ride to the award.

4. Buster Posey, Giants
Posey already owns an MVP, a Rookie of the Year Award, and three World Series rings. He’s batting .313/.371/.471 and playing well at the most important position on the diamond. The Giants are winning again and Posey is their face, at least on the offensive side of the ball. It would probably take a postseason push (which looks less likely after this weekend) and a fade from the guys ahead of him on this list, but Posey could be in line for some more hardware.

3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
We talk a lot about Mike Trout having been the most valuable player, or close to it, each of the last four seasons. While his numbers are a little more earthbound, the same could be said of McCutchen, who won the award in 2013 and might have won it in in ’14 if the voters weren’t looking for a new angle. He’s a contender again in 2015, hitting .305/.406/.522 with 20 homers, seven stolen bases, and his typical solid work in center field. Perhaps most importantly, he’s the only one of the NL’s five 5-WAR position players (per fangraphs) whose team would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

2. Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Fielding-independent pitching metrics prefer another Dodgers pitcher, but run prevention says Greinke has been not only the best pitcher in the game, but the most valuable player in the National League (his 8.2 WAR per Baseball Reference top the next guy by .2 wins). The 14-3 won-loss record might not ring as loudly with today’s voters as it would have in years past, but a 1.61 ERA reverberates all over the country. Greinke’s 164 strikeouts and 31 walks are good for a 5.29-to-1 ratio, better than his 4.75 figure when he won the Al Cy Young in 2009, with a 2.16 ERA. The Dodgers are in first place as well, so if it feels like we’re watching the same movie we watched last year, we may be in for another predictable Hollywood ending.

1. Bryce Harper, Nationals
Before the Nationals decided they weren’t interested in winning the NL East, this seemed like a forgone conclusion. Even after falling off some in the second half, Harper’s .332/.458/.652 line far exceeds that of any contender in either league (Miguel Cabrera’s 188 wRC+ is the closest in either league to Harper’s 195, and no one else in the L is over 173). He’s clubbed 31 homers, he’s a good baserunner and a good defender, and he fills the narrative of breaking out after (somewhat ridiculously) being considered for the past few seasons. The only thing standing between Harper and his first MVP is his fading team.

Harper’s season feels a bit like Jacoby Ellsbury’s in 2011. He looks like the best position player in the league, and he continues to excel while his teammates crumble around him, so the pitcher with striking numbers starts to look better and better to the voters. His saving grace may be the absence of a Jose Bautista having arguably as good a season with the bat and splitting the votes from voters who would rather not give a pitcher both major awards.

Honorable Mentions: Clayton Kershaw, AJ Pollock, Joey Votto

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Garciparra a Boston Legend, if Not a Hall of Famer

One more in the Forecaster series, this time about the guy who was Big Papi before Big Papi… kind of.

He steps into the batter’s box, rearranging the dirt with his feet. He steps out of the box and tightens his batting gloves. Back in the box, he stares down Ramiro Mendoza on the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound, gesturing toward Mendoza with his bat in a circular motion six times, then checks his batting gloves again. The gloves are ready. The pitch is over the plate. Nomar Garciaparra turns on it, clearing the left field fence and setting off at a casual pace, following both runners around the bases as the Red Sox extend their lead over the Yankees to five runs. It’s Garciaparra’s second homer of the day and his 23rd of the 1999 season, and it raises his batting average to .352. The Red Sox are headed back to the playoffs and their 26-year-old shortstop is an MVP candidate. Life is good in Boston.

Fast-forward four and a half years and the Red Sox are fresh off another playoff run.
Still just 30, Garciaparra has put up numbers that compare with those of the game’s legends. How many other shortstops have had 173 home runs, a .323 batting average, and more than 40 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in their first seven full seasons? None, of course, but the closest was contemporary Alex Rodriguez, who, along with Garciaparra and Derek Jeter, formed a triumvirate of power-hitting shortstops who revolutionized the position in the late nineties and all seemed destined for Cooperstown.

On July 1, 2004, Garciaparra looks on dejectedly, nursing an Achilles tendon injury as the Red Sox lose a heartbreaker to the Yankees, falling eight and a half games behind in the division. To that point in the season, Nomar had appeared in just 17 games, batting .235 with just one home run and defense that may still have been suffering from the wrist injury that cost him most of the 2001 season. Weeks later, he would be shipped off to Chicago in the deal that brought Orlando Cabrera and a championship to Boston, and his career would never fully recover.

Nomar would go on to wear Cubs, Dodgers, and Athletics uniforms before signing a one-day contract to retire with the Red Sox in March, 2010. After leaving Boston, he hit .288 with 51 home runs in the final 1,771 plate appearances of his career, adding just 3.1 WAR to his career total. Still, Garciaparra’s .313 career batting average is better than every shortstop in history except Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan. His 370 doubles are more than Johnny Mize or Duke Snider hit, and his 229 home runs top Hall of Fame infielders Bobby Doerr and Barry Larkin.

When his name first graced the Hall of Fame ballot in 2014, he received 5.5 percent of the vote, just enough to linger on the ballot for one more year. Given all the more qualified players stuck in ballot purgatory, there is no chance that the Baseball Writers Association elects Garciaparra to the Hall. Is that fair, or is Nomar underappreciated because of his career arc and the length of time since he provided fans and writers with the most inspiring memories?

In terms of accumulated value, the Hall of Fame cutoff point tends to be between 50 and 55 WAR. Most eligible players with more than 55 WAR have busts in Cooperstown.
Most players with fewer than 50 WAR do not. Garciaparra’s 44.2 seem to put him firmly on the outside. There are, of course, many exceptions. Infielders like Travis Jackson, Red Schoendienst, and Phil Rizzuto are in the Hall with fewer WAR than Nomar. So are short-career sluggers like Chuck Klein, Hack Wilson, and Roy Campanella. A peak like Nomar’s has overwhelmed a lack of volume in the eyes of the voters many times before.

On the other side of that coin, infielders like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Bobby Grich are outside the Hall of Fame with far more WAR than Garciaparra earned (each has at least 70). So are superior sluggers like Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Piazza. The Hall of Fame has held the players of recent generations to a standard far higher than any other era, so if an exception is to be made for Nomar, one will need to be made for dozens of more qualified recent players as well.

In its totality, Nomar Garciaparra’s baseball resume is that of a star, if not necessarily a legend. For seven years in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, though, Nomar was among the game’s elite players, and the most popular player on a popular and successful Red Sox team. For some fans, the lasting image of Nomar in Boston has him sitting on the bench, nursing a wrist or ankle injury. Others remember Nomar slapping doubles off the Green Monster, lining homers over it, or chasing down a slow roller and throwing on the run for an out. These are memories of a Boston legend.

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David Ortiz and the Quest for 500 Home Runs

Episode three in the Forecaster series. As of this reposting, this one’s almost four weeks and exactly for Big Papi dingers old. By the time you’re reading it, it’s probably older. So it goes.

On June 27, 1977, Willie McCovey hit his 487th career home run, a solo shot off Jack Billingham of the Cincinnati Reds. Four innings later, McCovey victimized Billingham again, his second solo clout in a 14-9 win, and number 488 for his career. It was a lost season for the Giants, as McCovey was past his prime at 39 and surrounded by mediocrity.

On August 7, 2015, David Ortiz hit his 487th career home run, a two-run shot off Daniel Norris of the Detroit Tigers. The next day, Ortiz victimized Alfredo Simon for number 488, his third blast in four games, in a loss to the Tigers. It was a lost season for the Red Sox, as Ortiz was past his prime at 39 and surrounded by mediocrity.

McCovey finished his Hall of Fame career with 521 home runs and 2,211 hits. McCovey’s nickname, Stretch, seems to have applied more to the lefty’s 6’4” height than his ability at first base, where modern fielding metrics show he was well below-average. He was no threat on the basepaths either, stealing just 26 bases in his career. All he did well was hit, but in that pursuit, he was an all-time great, even raising his game in October, adding three home runs in just two postseason series.

Ortiz’s nickname, Big Papi, is an obvious reference to the lefty’s size. He’s been listed at 6’3” and 230 pounds since he really weighed 230 pounds. His fielding, though, is so suspect that the Red Sox rarely let him wear a glove, and he’s never done much damage with his legs, stealing just 15 bases in his career. All he does well is hit, but in that pursuit, he is an all-time great, his 488 home runs scattered among 2,251 career hits. And in October, he may be the all-time greatest, adding 17 home runs and several lifetimes’ worth of dramatic flourishes.

Whether Ortiz will reach the 500-homer plateau is less a question of math and more a question of belief. He turns 40 this November, and will likely be somewhere north of 490 when the 2016 season starts. Do you believe he can stay injury-free and add to his total at an age when most players are golfing, fishing, or coaching their kids’ Little League teams? Do the Red Sox believe giving Ortiz regular playing time at age 40 is a responsible resource allocation, with Hanley Ramirez’s performance demanding that he assume designated hitter duty? Does Ortiz believe another year of baseball is in his best interest?

In light of Papi’s recent power surge, the answer to all of these questions is probably yes. In fact, pending a physical, the Red Sox are contractually obligated to pick up his option in 2016, and will give to pick up his 2017 option if they play him regularly in ‘16. With something like 450 plate appearances next season and 200 in 2017, one can envision Ortiz finishing right around 521 homers. That would match not only McCovey, but also Frank Thomas- another 6’5” behemoth- and Ted Williams- another lefty who did a little damage at Fenway Park.

Five hundred home runs were once a guaranteed Hall of Fame ticket. Setting aside those with the most prominent asterisks next to their names, every eligible player with 500 career roundtrippers has a bust in Cooperstown. Value metrics suggest that Papi falls short of most, if not all, of those sluggers, since he hit most of his longballs in a hitters’ era and did so without adding any fielding or baserunning value. That said, Ortiz is a postseason legend without equal. If we include the postseason, Papi’s 500th home run was the first of two he hit against the Tigers on July 26th, and now he’s only 19 short of McCovey’s 524.

Whether or not Ortiz ever makes the Hall of Fame, it looks more and more likely that he will hit 500 home runs, and there is little reason to believe he might reach that milestone in any uniform other than Boston’s. From relatively inconsequential drives against unsuspecting rookies with no pennant race in sight to extra-inning walk-off jobs in October, Big Papi has hit a homer for every occasion. It’s no stretch to say he’s an all-time great.

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Predicting the Rest of the 2015 Season

Here’s episode two in my Forecaster series, predictions for the rest of the season. In the week since I first drafted this, I’ve lost a little faith in the Nationals and a lot of faith in the Mets’ ability to fall behind the Nationals.

The 2011 Boston Red Sox had the best roster I had ever seen. They missed the playoffs by one excruciating game. The 2015 Washington Nationals might have been even better on paper. Sometimes things don’t work out as planned.

On any given evening, any major league baseball team can beat any other baseball team. This is true of baseball, when the players on the field change from day to day, more than any other sport. Over 162 games, things tend to settle, with the most talented teams rising to the top. Nothing is ever guaranteed, though, as a rash of injuries or a team-wide slump can make a good team look bad over an extended stretch.

In 2015, the American League standings look almost upside down, with massively talented rosters in Seattle, Cleveland, and Boston spending much of the season in last place, while surprises like Houston, Texas, and Minnesota remain in contention for the postseason. In contrast, the National League has followed the script, with the exception of Washington’s August swoon, which has knocked them out of first place.

As August fades and September beckons, the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Following are one fan’s predictions for the rest of the regular seasons and the playoffs:

In the American League East, the already stacked Blue Jays added ace David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, along with a few key bullpen pieces, at the trade deadline. Even with just average pitching, they look like the best team in the American League. Over the weekend, Toronto overtook the elderly Yankees, who have succeeded so far on the backs of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Brett Gardner, three injury-prone players who have been surprisingly healthy in 2015. Teixeira’s recent knee bruise could signal that the team’s uncanny luck is finally running out.

The Royals are clearly the class of the AL Central, and will sail to the division title on the backs of their strong defense and dominant relief pitching.

Out west, Houston played .500 baseball between their 18-7 start to the season and this weekend’s exhilarating sweep of the Dodgers. Three months of mediocrity may not inspire extreme confidence, but the Astros are peaking at the right time and new acquisitions Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers are dealing. Even another month of .500 ball should be enough to hold off the middling Angels and Rangers for the division title.

The Yankees look like a lock for no less than the first Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Angels and Rangers will continue to jockey for position in the Wild Card standings with Minnesota, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay. Baltimore certainly has the strongest offense of the five, and may have the pitching to claim the final AL playoff spot.

In the National League East, after the weekend’s games, the Mets had a five-game lead over Washington, which, given the talent gap between them, makes for a compelling race down the stretch. The Mets’ history of September collapses shouldn’t affect this team, but the youth of their pitching staff might, as two of their three young pitching stars, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, have already surpassed their career highs in big-league innings and Matt Harvey is approaching his. With Stephen Strasburg healthy again and Bryce Harper leading the MVP race, watch for the Nats to eclipse the Mets in the final days of the season.

The NL Central has been the strongest division in baseball, home to the three best records in the league, but it offers little to watch down the stretch. The Cardinals are running away with the division, the Pirates are way out in front for the first Wild Card, and the Cubs have a six-game edge for the second.

It’s a familiar picture in the NL West, with only the Dodgers and Giants relevant once again. The Giants continue to squeeze more than can be expected out of a pedestrian roster and can never be counted out, but the Dodgers have a reloaded rotation with Mat Latos and Alex Wood slotting in behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, possibly the two best pitchers in the league, and despite their no-show in Houston over the weekend, they have the bats to hold off their rivals for the division.

Predicting the winner of a 1-, 5-, or 7-game series is a fool’s errand, as recent history reminds us that any team can get hot and catch a few breaks and topple a more talented team in October. That said, I’ll give it a try so you have someone to make fun of at your Halloween party.

First, the Wild Card games: The Yankees will reprise the eighth-inning magic that has kept them afloat this August and beat the Orioles despite Baltimore’s strong bullpen. Jon Lester will reprise his role as Wild Card goat when the Pirates score six in the sixth to come back against the baby Cubs.

In the American League Division Series, the Blue Jays will make quick work of the Astros, welcoming them back to the playoffs with nine home runs in a three-game sweep. The Royals and Yankees will pit their league-best bullpens against each other in five epic games, the Royals’ depth providing the edge as they win more than one in extra innings.

The first National League Division Series will pit baseball’s two best rosters and two bumbling managers. Fans of other teams will be in awe of Bryce Harper’s and Yasiel Puig’s dazzling feats of athleticism, while fans of the Dodgers and Nationals will watch through their fingers as Don Mattingly and Matt Williams fight to give each game away, letting Jonathan Papelbon and Kenley Jansen rot on the bench while weaker relievers pitch high-leverage innings. The magic that carried Washington past the Mets in September will finally fade as Los Angeles prevails in five.

After watching the Cardinals win more than 100 games in the regular season, fans across the country will get a glimpse of the superior Pirates, who hit better and run better and whose pitchers have nearly identical strikeout, walk, and home run rates to the superficially elite Cardinals’ rotation. The Cards’ historically great strand rate won’t help them when the Pirates blow them out in games one and two in St. Louis. As America falls in love with Pittsburgh, the Cardinals will break our hearts again, winning three one-run games to claim the series.

In the American League Championship Series, America’s other team will see its magical run fade. Toronto will take advantage of Kansas City’s mediocre starting pitching by hitting balls where the Royals’ great fielders can’t get to them. Two showdowns between trade acquisitions Price and Johnny Cueto will be the highlights of a five-game Toronto win.

The National League Championship Series will see the Dodgers exact revenge on the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. Kershaw and Greinke will carry the Dodgers in six games.

A Blue Jays-Dodgers World Series will guarantee someone’s first championship in over two decades. It will also pit the majors’ best offense against the best playoff rotation. Kershaw and Greinke against Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion constitute must-watch baseball. Pitching will win the day, as the Dodgers take the series in six.

After the Series, we’ll learn that Josh Donaldson was named American League MVP, dealing Mike Trout his third second-place finish in four years. Bryce Harper will easily win the NL’s award. Greinke and Oakland’s Sonny Gray will win the Cy Young Awards, while Houston’s Carlos Correa and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant will be named Rookies of the Year.

If you feel compelled to take any of these picks to Vegas, please don’t send me the bill when you lose.

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